HOUSTON – Halloween turned into Flag Day for the University of South Florida Bulls.
And afterward, nobody from USF was in a holiday mood. An abundance of penalties cost USF a potentially scintillating victory, allowing the Houston Cougars to escaped with a 35-23 win on Thursday night before an intimate and relieved gathering at Reliant Stadium.
“That’s not our football team,’’ USF coach Willie Taggart said after the Bulls compiled 19 penalties for 170 yards, school records in both categories. “We’re not an undisciplined team. We just can’t have that.’’
The key moment: USF true freshman quarterback Mike White, superb all night, appeared to hit junior receiver Andre Davis on a go-ahead 27-yard touchdown pass just inside the end zone’s right pylon with 4:06 remaining.
Davis, who slightly pushed off with his left arm as the ball was in the air, was called for offensive pass interference on Cougars cornerback William Jackson. Taggart, irate, threw hit headset to the ground in disgust.
“I saw a catch for a touchdown,’’ Taggart said. “That’s what I saw. I wasn’t over there on that side. It is what it is.’’
“I thought I went up and made a good play,’’ Davis said. “Good protection. Good throw. The referees obviously saw the play different.’’
The Bulls (2-6, 2-2 American Athletic Conference) went from touchdown to third-and-25 at the Houston 42-yard line. White was swamped and sacked. He fumbled and it was recovered by Houston defensive tackle Jeremiah Farley. And that led to a tack-on touchdown by Houston (7-1, 3-0).
White, USF’s fourth starting quarterback in eight games, was 26 of 41 for 311 yards and two touchdowns, both to junior tight end Mike McFarland. He utilized 10 different receivers. He looked poised, sharp and confident.
Additionally, junior place-kicker Marvin Kloss connected on field goals of 39, 50 and 49 yards, giving his 13 consecutive attempts, another school record.
But even Kloss knew the game’s true story.
“Mike White stepped in there to give us new hope and a new identity,’’ Kloss said. “It’s amazing for a young guy to go in there like that in his first collegiate start.’’
White, who became the fifth USF all-time quarterback to register a 300-yard passing game, utilized 10 different receivers. Davis, particularly, was a favorite target with nine receptions for 134 yards – the first 100-yard receiving performance by a USF player since Davis went 12 for 191 last season at Nevada.
“Mike did a great job, but the best part was Mike on the sidelines,’’ said Taggart, whose offense was aided by the return of senior running back Marcus Shaw (18 carries, 34 yards), who played for the first time since Oct. 5, when he injured his hamstring. “He was being a leader and making our guys believe. I think our guys played for him. He put the ball in there where only our receivers could catch them. He got everybody fired up. A big part of being a quarterback is getting your players to play for you and he did that.’’
“Special kid, man,’’ Davis said. “I love having Mike White at quarterback. One day I caught him up at the facility, working until 11 o’clock, getting better at football. He’s a special kid.’’
For all of White’s heart, it looked like USF was simply headed to another heartbreaker.
Houston assumed a 28-13 lead in the third quarter and looked to be in secure shape. But the Bulls, who ended a streak of 13 straight quarters without an offensive touchdown on White’s 8-yard pass to junior tight end Mike McFarland in the second quarter, came roaring back.
Kloss made a 49-yard field goal, then the Bulls pulled within 28-23 when White led a 14-play, 75-yard drive, culminating in his 2-yard pass to McFarland and fourth-and goal with 7:09 remaining.
After the Bulls stalled on their next possession, they got a huge break when Houston’s Damian Payne fumbled a punt by Mattias Ciabatti. USF’s Fidel Montgomery recovered and the Bulls were back in business from Houston’s 27-yard line. On third-and-10, White found Davis in the right corner, but the flag negated USF’s touchdown.
And it changed everything.
Taggart said it never should’ve come down to that.
“We were really bad at tackling tonight,’’ Taggart said. “That’s what it all boils down to. We were in good position, but missed the tackles.’’
A key moment occurred when Kloss’ 50-yard field goal cut Houston’s lead to 21-13 in the third quarter. He attempted a left-footed onside kick, but it was quickly smothered at the USF 48-yard line.
“We were expecting that guy to bail out,’’ Kloss said. “On film, it showed him leaving early. This time, he stayed and we never had a shot at it.’’
On Houston’s second play, Cougars quarterback John O’Korn (22 of 27 for 263 yards, three touchdowns) found Deontay Greenberry on a 48-yard score. Freshman defensive back Johnny Ward could’ve stopped Greenberry, but whiffed on the tackle. Greenberry had nothing but green grass ahead.
“I hate it for our guys,’’ Taggart said. “They fought so hard. You haven’t seen our football team fight back like that. It was the first time all year where we played so well and put ourselves in position to win. But we couldn’t get it done.’’
The missed tackles, blown assignments and abundance of flags saw to that.